Saturday, October 28, 2017

Creative cocktails in Chicago at Alinea

Ow!  What a hangover from last night.  If you looked up hangover in the dictionary, could you please bring that dictionary and knock me in the head so I can get a few more hours' sleep?  Zzzzz....

Anyway, Grant Achatz is a mad man.  If not a mad man, at least a mad scientist.  If not a mad scientist, he's at least the Beethoven of his field.

"Jesus Can't Hit a
Curveball":  Chareau,
chartreuse, gin,
serrano and poblano
ice.  Had to order it
for the name, alone.
(And if you get the
reference, we should
be friends!)
"Ain't Nobody Got Lime
for That":  lavender,
vermouth, mango
brandy, green apple
ice cubes.
(Someone should turn
those words into a
hip-hop remix!)
No joke on that last one.  Beethoven lost all of his hearing and was one of the inventors of the Romantic period of classical music.  The owner of one of the best restaurants in the world -- Alinea -- Grant Achatz is a chef at the pinnacle of his career, and at the forefront of molecular gastronomy.  And ten years ago, tongue cancer caused him to lose all of his sense of taste.  (Thankfully, his cancer is in remission and he got his taste back.)

Unfortunately, this isn't a blog post about Alinea.  Haven't gotten into that restaurant, yet!  (I did do Next -- his other restaurant -- once, though. Good stuff, although the particular dinner I went to didn't really showcase his talents because it wasn't a typical dinner.)

But this blog post is about something equally creative: His restaurant group (not-so-creatively titled the Alinea Restaurant Group) owns a cocktail joint adjacent to (and sharing a bathroom with) Next. The concept in their words:
Where cocktails and service are given the same attention to detail as a four-star restaurant; where bartenders are trained as chefs; where the produce and herbs are carefully sourced and procured fresh daily; where the name and branding of the spirit mixed is less important than its actual flavor; where drinks are made quickly and consistently in a state-of-the-art drink kitchen; where innovation and tradition are both honored. -
"Jungle Bird": pineapple,
Campari, layered rums.
(I'm starting to feel a
little funny!)
"Cawberrry strobbler":
Fig, black pepper,

cantaloupe, strawberry,

various sherries.

I brought my cousin on a trip to Chicago to show her around town, and ever since learning about this place's existence, I've wanted to come here, but never had an excuse.  Surely with her 92 lbs of stature and my drinking experience, we could tackle a tasting menu of cocktails together.

Here's the deal:  You decide when you make the reservation how boozy you're going to get.  Depending on your selection, they slot you in certain time slots.  (Presumably, the more drinks you get, you're gonna slow down in a non-linear fashion.  Options include the 3-course cocktail progression, 5-course cocktail tasting menu with prepared food (you can also order food with 3 if you want but it's not built into the cost), and 7-course kitchen table experience, presented inside the Aviary's kitchen.  May God have mercy on your soul if you bring your 92-lb anyone to a 5- or 7-cocktail tasting.  At the 3-cocktail progression, my head might stop throbbing by next Tuesday.)

"Crispy Pork Skin":  Salt and vinegar.  (Had to eat something!)
The cocktails are not yo mama's cocktails.  All of them have been derived by the mad scientist's staff:  Some feature smoke, others gelatins, others still ices made from various things.  In some cases, the ices are designed to break and cause two ingredients to mix.  Or, they rely on the specific gravities of certain fluids so they don't mix (as in "Jungle Bird", above).

Tempura shrimp: Togarashi-spiced
aioli, yuzu-pickled nashi pear.
(If I had thought this post through
better, I should have taken this
photo in landscape.)
"Feather Knows Best":
Barrel smoke, sherry,
cognac, scotch.
(¿Dónde están mis
Sherry, bourbon,
(I can't feel my
skull, anymore.)
The cocktail list is long and ever-changing, so one trip is not enough.  (Although with my throbbing head, it'll be a few until I put my liver to work again!)

Things also progress, throughout the night.  The top two cocktails, "Jesus Can't Hit a Curveball" and "Ain't Nobody Got Lime for That", feature fruit-forward flavors (and apparently a lot of alliteration).  You can choose from a long list of fruit-forward cocktails; these were mainly chosen for their names.  The second ones got a little stronger and more predominantly feature alcohol.  The third category, heavier, smokier drinks usually featuring whiskies.

Well, my lightweight cousin was out for this round, so I had her whole glass.  Having had half of each of her previous two drinks, this put me at five double-shot drinks by this point in the night, so I was definitely doing pretty good by this point last night.

A5 wagyu: tofu misozuke, yuzu kosho mustard.
(¡Muy delicioso!  Why am I speaking Spanish now?)

"Carrot cake Ramos
rum fizz":  rooibos,
cream cheese, black
walnut, spices. AKA
"carrot cake in a glass".
Before we went, I had to order some A5 wagyu.  Because it's A5 wagyu, that's why!  Also, I had to get one more drink on the menu:  the carrot cake Ramos rum fizz.  My favorite cocktail of all time is the Ramos gin fizz.  So if someone's doing a spin on it -- however far from the original it is, I want to know about it.

Turned out, this was a pretty far departure from the original:  first, it's a rum fizz, rather than a gin fizz, so it's pretty much an international flight from the original.  The original has half-and-half in it, this one, cream cheese.  Whoa.  Quite frankly, this was basically carrot cake in a glass.  Use your own sense of right and wrong in the world to decide for yourself if you'd like it.

All in all, a terrific evening.  There's nothing stuffy about this place, save for the amount of money you pay to do this.  And I'm really glad I came.

Now, where are my pantalones?

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Polyface Farm, Part Deux

Featured in "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "Food, Inc.", Polyface Farm challenges the way we do farming today.  While their system is not a completely closed loop, it's close, and certainly a far cry from the way most Americans get their meat and eggs:  For example, grass grows, then cows are moved into a space where they graze for a day, then chickens are moved in a few days afterward to eat the fly larvae out of the poop left behind by the cows.  Why not move the chickens in immediately?  Because they want to give a few days to let the fly larvae get big, fat, and delicious first.  Nom nom nom!  Essentially, they've built an assembly line wherein they turn fly larvae into chicken eggs.  Now, who wouldn't want to eat that?!  :)

I had the privilege of touring Polyface Farm many years ago.  This is my second rodeo, and admittedly, my brother and I got lost on the way and couldn't find the place, so we were kind of really, really, ridiculously late.  But I have a few photos from the day that I hope capture the day.

Young broiler chickens
Young broilers being raised for meat. They're moved daily in
120 sq ft. shelters after cows have come through.  Chickens
do not like long grass -- predators that like to eat chickens
tend to live in long grass.

Hay bales
Oh hay.
Stewing hens
Stewing hens. Called as such because you have to cook them a
long time (e.g. through braising) or else they'll be tough.  They
produce eggs for 2-3 years and then are usually slaughtered for
meat.  In the time they graze, they are brought in a few days
after the cows come through and eat the fly larvae right out of
the cow patties (mmm...protein). They keep them a few days
behind the cows to let the larvae get plump and delicious.
The white electric fence is deliberately white:  Somehow, the
birds see it blend into the sky and to them it goes infinitely
high.  Predators such as bears and coyotes see the low fence
and assume that there's an easy way in without jumping.
When they finally realize there isn't and they decide to charge
the fence, they get zapped and then walk away.

Cow with shit on it
I like to think of this one as the Donald Trump cow:
Full of sh*t and completely unaware of it.

Cattle on the move
The cattle move once a day. While cattle have a reputation for
being difficult to move (requiring a team of people and dogs).
these cattle are not hard to move because they associate
moving with new food.  The farm says that this type of farming
allows the land to be about twice as productive as other farms
in the state of Virginia.
Polyface also has pigs (none seen on this trip).  But I didn't
know that they had goats.  Learn something new every time
you come here.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Eleventh Time’s a Charm: NASA’s Wallops Island Artificial Cloud Launch

[Teditor's Note: This blog post was ultimately published on StarTalk Radio's website, Neil deGrasse Tyson's podcast. Read my original version here, or read the slightly-tweaked version there. They're almost exactly the same thing. A big shout out to my friend, Stacey, without whom I never would have managed to end up "making the big time".]

As a city boy, seeing the center of the Milky Way at night freaks me out. It clearly indicates to me that I’m out of my element: I’m not in Kansas, anymore. Or the city, as it were. The Milky Way was twinkling down on me on June 29 as I assembled my tripod on the unlit causeway overlooking Shelly Bay and the Queen Sound Channel. I was to point a camera toward the terrier improved malemute sounding rocket at NASA’s Wallops Island launch facility in Virginia and hope that this launch attempt would end better than the ten before it.

The Milky Way belied the truth: We earthbound beings would not witness sunrise for over an hour, but a hundred miles above, the Earth curved away sufficiently to allow the sun to shine in space. These conditions would allow NASA scientists to visually observe particle motions in the ionosphere. Said sounding rocket carried a payload of ten canisters of chemical tracers to be dispersed into the upper atmosphere. In combination, the chemicals would form artificial clouds to be lit by the rising sun. Scientists at Wallops and/or Duck, North Carolina would observe and measure the dispersion for their research.
“People look at me with less confusion when I strap into an airplane bound for Orlando than when I’ve strapped into a car headed to Wallops. For the former, the most persistent question is always, “What, no Disney?” Here, the more common reaction was, “Are you insane?”
I arrived that day at 4:09 am for a 4:25 am launch. While I’d like to take credit for my perfect timing, the truth is that I did not know if I would even make it. I live nowhere near Wallops Island, and to see this launch would require an all-nighter drive. A social appointment the night before also precluded an early departure where I could get some winks before the big moment.

Two faded "watermelon petals" and
two new ones.
I’ve seen many a launch in my days. But for some reason, people look at me with less confusion when I strap into an airplane bound for Orlando than when I’ve strapped into a car headed to Wallops. For the former, the most persistent question is always, “What, no Disney?” Here, the more common reaction was, “Are you insane?” I guess 4:00 am sounding rocket launches aren’t people’s cups o’ tea.

The way I see it, if you want to win, you have to play the game. I didn’t attempt all ten previous launches, making my own weather judgments before undertaking the 600-mile round trip. But I did try twice prior to this, once on an ill-fated Father’s Day excursion that ended in a father-son tire change and a 150-mile drive home on a donut. And with each decision not to go, I constantly second-guessed myself, sweating bullets until the official scrub decision came.

Most launch windows started a little after 9:00 pm, after sunset. Unfortunately, clouds (real ones) often littered the sky at night, forcing one scrub after another. After a series of bad days, NASA took a pause and then flipped the launch window to the early morning, beginning at 4:25 am. In my experience, though, nighttime launches tend to go more often as planned, and sure enough, the forecast on the morning of June 29 called for clear skies. So I had to go to this one.

The final four and the remnants of
older clouds.
From the causeway, I could hear the launch control chatter from loudspeakers at the visitor’s center, maybe a half mile away. However, I could not see or hear anything from my phone. No service here. In fact, no nothing here, really. Were it not for the distant murmur of announcer + flight controllers, there’d be no indication that I was anywhere near a launch pad. I wouldn’t have even known where to aim my camera had it not been for a seasoned spectator who pointed to the spot on a previous night!

As 4:25 am neared, I became increasingly excited. Having witnessed so many scrubs before – many more scrubs than launches – I tend to tamp down my own anticipation until the last minutes of a countdown. Too many emotional highs followed by scrub-induced roller coaster drops. Thankfully, the terrier-malemute is a two-stage solid rocket. Solid fuel means makes for a simpler rocket than liquid fuel. So, I allowed myself the jitters and emotional excess that may have been reserved before, say, a Falcon 9 launch.

5, 4, 3 -- the rocket was off the ground before “2, 1”! I forgot that there’d be a sound delay from the countdown speakers from their distance. Oops! To make matters worse, the seasoned spectator had led me astray: My camera was pointed in the wrong direction! By the time my lens caught up with its target, the first stage was already falling back to Earth. Unlike the big rockets that normally leave Earth at a rate of 3 Gs, this sounding rocket pulled about 26 Gs. And unlike a space shuttle night launch that you can read a newspaper by, this was a bright match stick that escaped Earth nearly as quickly as my brain could process what was happening. Oh well, forget the video. (Even NASA’s official video could not capture the launch successfully.)

Fade to blue.
The sound came and went. A mighty roar…and then it was gone. Meanwhile, a point of light (the first stage) dropped to Earth like a firework ember as an increasingly dimmer “star” (the second stage) traversed the heavens. Within seconds, the star looked like any other satellite you might see on a clear night.

Minutes passed.

Suddenly, two lobes of colorful, bright light formed in the sky. Some news articles predicted the light spectacle as an “artificial aurora”. Wrong. I’d call them pink flower petals with green watermelon rinds no larger than the moon above your head. As they faded, four more petals came into being in square formation. (This could almost be a scene out of Fantasia if the right score supported it.) A short while after that, the final four. Had I woken in the dead of the night to the sight of these so-called “clouds”, I would have audibly gasped in fear and bewilderment. The petals were surreal and out of place, as though they did not belong to this world. The sight of this evoked vivid memories and the same eerie, ethereal sensation from when I witnessed this same experiment some years ago from New York City. Amazing to think that these figures in the night sky could have such a visual radius.

Sunrise from the causeway.  Road
signs and all.
Over the course of the next half hour, the watermelon petals faded to blue and eventually ceded to the now-brightening sky. I felt very fortunate to have witnessed this firsthand. There was so much hype about this launch in social media; so many thousands of people hoped for an evening launch so they would be awake to see it. Unfortunately, the pragmatism of science and space agencies outweighs the wishes of spectators, and when the early-morning launch availability presented itself, NASA proceeded forth with the countdown. Nonetheless, there will be more launches in the future, and many other interesting air- and space-borne experiments to come. And I hope to be there again, this time with my camera pointed rightly. Fortunately, it is not just nature, but also NASA, that gives us reasons to keep looking up.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Playing tourist in San Francisco

San Francisco is my favorite city in the United States.  The food, the culture, the beauty, the weather, the bay....  I would happily move there if I didn't have so many roots in the east coast.  Instead, I am left to perpetually enjoy it as a tourist.

Or, occasionally work there.  My job had me staying at the Westin St. Francis on Powell St for training, right in the thick of things.  Despite having been to San Francisco oodles of times, the only time I did the "touristy" stuff in San Francisco was when I was 14, back during the Precambrian era.  So after my training finished, I took a few days off to be the most un-original tourist in San Francisco.  While I may scoff at the throngs of onlookers in New York, I gleefully took the cable car outside my hotel and I don't care who knows it!

Anyway, if a picture's a thousand words, then I need to stop writing and let the pictures do the talking.

View of the bay from Embarcadero Center
View of the bay from Embarcadero Center, my office for the

Rooftop gardens
A garden-filled rooftop walk next to the Embarcadero Center.
A great place to take a lunch break.

The ferry terminal
Perhaps my favorite place in San Francisco...the ferry terminal.
I want to eat all the noms in there.

Ferry terminal area at night
Ferry terminal area at night.

Ferry terminal area at night
Sorry...I just like my night shots.  Another night shot from the
ferry terminal area.

Union Square
Some high-faluttin' shops at Union Square.  I just love how
the palm trees add so much elegance to the square.

Inside a cable car heading up Powell St.
Unabashed tourist right here.
Heading up Powell St.  Ding ding!
Sea lions at Fisherman's Wharf
Arf arf arf!  The sea lions at Fisherman's Wharf.

The Bay Bridge as seen from Fisherman's Wharf
The Bay Bridge as seen from Fisherman's Wharf.

Golden Gate Bridge
The, Gold...Golden....ahh, nevermind, let me look this
up and get back to you on what this bridge is called.

Fire pit at the Sheraton Fisherman's Wharf
Moved to the Sheraton Fisherman's Wharf.  (The Westin
St. Francis is mucho dinero, my friend.)  Here, you can enjoy
a California red while warming up to one of several fire pits.